But following the second prediction of the passion there seems to be a non-sequitur in process: 33 They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
Again the disciples remain silent. Before they were afraid to ask Jesus about the meaning of his teaching. Here they think they are trying to avoid embarrassment. If before they worried that Jesus would condemn them for not understanding his teaching, now, are they worried that he will condemn them for desiring and talking about greatness? They do not yet fathom Jesus as a gracious savior.
Why would greatness be the topic of the discussion? Not many scholars address this question, just taking it as a given or chalking it up to culture. But I think it deserves a little more attention. In the first passion prediction (Mark 8) Peter rebukes Jesus after he has spoken about suffering and death. Perhaps it is in the first hearing that shock fuels the disbelief. One should remember that when the blind man is restored to sight, it occurs in a sequence of actions on Jesus’ part. Might it be that the same dynamic is in play here? With shock of the first prediction past, they are able to “see” a little more. They have accepted Jesus’ death is on the horizon – after all they too can see the growing opposition among secular and religious leaders. If Jesus has been preparing them for the time when he will not be with them, it might be quite natural for them to discuss the same thing among themselves: “When Jesus dies, we need to continue the mission – we need to get organized. OK – who is going to be in charge?” But if the disciples have not yet come to terms with the meaning of the words, “and three days after his death he will rise,” then the mission they are organizing for it not the right mission.
Another reason might be that each disciple was embarrassed that he/she did not understand Jesus’ teaching and assumed the other did. It is not hard to imagine raising up a topic – greatness – would have been a means to change the subject to something they did understand (or so they thought). All the while, they remained unaware that none of the understood.
But then again, it might be that the lesson of the Transfiguration has begun to set it and the disciples are beginning to understand something of the glory that awaits them in the promise of Jesus. Yet it does not seem that they have a sense of what must precede it: taking up your cross. The disciples have yet to ponder the place of suffering and service. They are thinking of discipleship in categories of power rather than of serving tables.
The discussion gives us some indication of the time and culture where questions of precedence and rank are not far from the surface. We see it in Jesus parable about seating oneself at the banquet table: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-14) Throughout the gospel there are hints that divine standards will collide with human convention.
Mark 9:33 What were you arguing about on the way? The verb for “discuss” often means “to reason”; here it suggests that sides have been taken and the issue has been argued in detail. Perhaps the question about who was greatest was sparked by the fact that only Peter, James, and John were taken up the mountain with Jesus (9:2–8).
- William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 336-41